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Apps While Driving Cause Biggest Spike in Traffic Deaths in 50 Years

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When distracted driving entered the national consciousness a decade ago, the problem was mainly people who made calls or sent texts from their cellphones. The solution then was to introduce new technologies to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel. Innovations since then, car Wi-Fi and a host of new apps like Snapchat, which allows motorists to post photos that record the speed of the vehicle, and the navigation app Waze even rewards drivers with points when they report traffic jams and accidents, have led to a boom in internet use in vehicles that safety experts say is contributing to a surge in highway deaths.

After steady declines over the last four decades, highway fatalities last year recorded the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years. And the numbers so far this year are even worse. In the first six months of 2016, highway deaths jumped 10.4 percent, to 17,775, from the comparable period of 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating an Oct. 26 crash near Tampa that killed five people. A passenger in one car, a teenager, recorded a Snapchat video showing her vehicle traveling at 115 m.p.h. just before the collision.

A lawsuit filed in a Georgia court claims a teenage driver who was in a September 2015 crash near Atlanta was using Snapchat while driving more than 100 m.p.h., according to court records. The car collided with the car of an Uber driver, who was seriously injured.

Most new vehicles sold today have software that connects to a smartphone and allows drivers to place phone calls, dictate texts and use apps hands-free. Ford Motor has its Sync system, for example. Others, including Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz, offer their own interfaces as well as Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto.

Automakers say these systems enable customers to concentrate on driving even while interacting with their smartphones.

“The whole principle is to bring voice recognition to customers so they can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel,” said Alan Hall, a spokesman for Ford, which began installing Sync in cars in 2007.

The Department of Transportation in October outlined a plan to work with the National Safety Council and other advocacy groups to devise a “Road to Zero” strategy, with the ambitious goal of eliminating roadway fatalities within 30 years

“We know that setting the bar for safety to the highest possible standard requires commitment from everyone to think differently about safety, from drivers to industry, safety organizations and government at all levels,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

One concern so far, though, is that current generations of automated driver-assistance systems, like the Autopilot feature offered by Tesla Motors, may be lulling some drivers into a false sense of security that can contribute to distracted driving.

Insurance companies, which closely track auto accidents, are convinced that the increasing use of electronic devices while driving is the biggest cause of the rise in road fatalities, according to Robert Gordon, a senior vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“This is a serious public safety concern for the nation,” Mr. Gordon said at a recent conference in Washington held by the National Transportation Safety Board. “We are all trying to figure out to what extent this is the new normal.”

Thanks to: Neal E. Boudette of The New York Times.

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